In our profession (developmental mathematics), the most common phrase this year seems to be “remediation is a failure”; states consider banning all developmental courses, and organizations call remediation a ‘bridge to nowhere’. What is the validity of these statements? What is the true status of developmental education in 2012?
To start with, take a look at a recent article by Hunter Boylan and Alexandros Goudas called “Knee-Jerk Reforms on Remediation“ see http://www.insidehighered.com/views/2012/06/19/essay-flawed-interpretations-research-remedial-education#ixzz1yG6A5hL2. Boylan and Goudas review the largest studies that are cited for the ‘failure’ statement, and easily point out the limitations of the research involved. Some studies employ a discontinuity analysis around the cut score for placement into developmental courses as an estimate of the effects of remediation. Other studies employ large data sets over a period of time to produce a demographic summary of who is referred to developmental math, who completes developmental, and who completes a college course. Like other demographic work, these studies can not prove causality. Neither type of study is a scientific basis for measuring the effect of developmental courses; both are valid estimates to determine the presence of a problem.
Now, I need to address two things … first, why the ‘failure’ message is the default position for so many people inside and outside of the profession; second, what is the true condition of developmental mathematics.
The failure message is most heard from two sources: the non-profits advocating for change and a completion agenda, and the foundations funding much of our experimentation. Neither of these sources is unbiased. However, sheer repetition from apparently independent sources creates the impression that the failure message is valid. I think the use of certain metaphors (like ‘bridge to nowhere’) creates an impression of certainty of conclusions, and suggests a cultural acceptance of ‘failure’. One problem we face is that we have used similar tactics ourselves, as in ‘drill and kill’ and ‘guide on the side’; proof by metaphor …or proof by rhyming … is not scientifically valid.
The true condition of developmental mathematics is much more subtle, which brings with it opportunities and challenges. A simple ‘failure’ message is easier to interpret and act upon (basically, throw it out!). The fact is that developmental mathematics delivers some benefits to many students. The problem is not a total failure of the concept but a lack of an appropriate model to implement the mission and goals. Developmental mathematics has its roots in remedial mathematics, which was a deliberate repetition of school mathematics; this, in turn, was based on a selective admissions college or university approach. The vast majority of developmental mathematics is currently carried out in the community college setting, with a diverse population of students; many of these students have an occupational goal … although they may eventually consider a university, their current education is employment based. Of course, many other students have a university goal.
We have not had a model appropriate for our population of students. We need to create a deliberate sequence of mathematical experiences to prepare students as quickly as possible for places they will have quantitative needs, whether STEM-bound or not. Even for STEM students, our existing curriculum is not a deliberate model; the current model presumes that exposure to a topic at a simple level will enable more advanced thinking in a complex setting. We need a model that emphasizes basic mathematical ideas from the beginning (the ‘good stuff’, as I call it), and let go of making sure that students can produce volumes of correct answers to symbolic questions with fractions and percents … or equations with fractions or radicals. Mathematical reasoning is far more important than a bag of 100 symbolic tricks and procedures.
The true condition of our profession is that we have become confused by the combination of our own frustrations and these external failure messages. Ours is a noble calling … if done correctly, developmental mathematics can be part of the process that enables people to be upwardly mobile; instead of the younger generation having a lower standard of living, we can part of the process that creates a better life for the next generation. Developmental mathematics can also be part of the process of major adjustment for adults who find that their occupation is no longer available.
The true condition of developmental mathematics is an opportunity for the transformative change to sound mathematics to help our students succeed in college and in society (quantitatively). We face great opportunities; we are not a failure. We need to look past the external messages to examine our profession with honesty and vision. Together, we can meet this opportunity with pride and enthusiasm.
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